Laser systems for missile defence progressing

9 November 2020


Israel has a four-tiered defence system against rockets and missiles – but what was sufficient some years ago, looks now less capable of protecting the Israeli population.

The Iron Dome and David's Sling rocket interceptors and the Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 ballistic missiles interceptors, are now operational. The Iron Dome, is combat-proven, with an average of 88% intercepts.

But this record is not considered good enough, and will be even less capable in the future, so the Israeli Air Force, is looking for other options. This time, it seems lasers may be the tool of choice to shoot down rockets.

The laser will be a complementary system to the kinetic ones, not a stand-alone system.

It should be noted that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) is against the laser for what they describe as a danger to aerial platforms. Efforts are being made to prove the laser will be safe in a congested aerial space. 

Years after it had been pushed aside in favour of the Iron Dome rocket interceptor, the laser beam that can do the same mission – probably better and with lower costs – is on its way back.

In recent months, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Rafael are working hard to accelerate the development of a laser system that can shoot down rockets and mortar shells.

According to IAI, a laser cannon prototype for intercepting mortar shells and similar short-range threats is in a very advanced stage of development, and successful experiments have already been carried out.

In recent years, the defence industries in Israel and the United States have been working to develop a laser-based defence system, which is considered to be the one that will change the battlefield.

A few years ago, Rafael presented the first model of a laser gun called an "iron beam" designed to respond to shells fired from a range of less than 5 km from the border. The Iron Dome has difficulty handling the threat because it wasn't fast enough to respond between launch detection and the hit.

According to IAI, the main advantage of the laser is a fast reaction time, and therefore such a system is good for dealing with short-range munitions such as mortars.

The U.S army and the IDF understand that this system has additional advantages over missile-based defence systems, since its arsenal of ammunition never ends, and the cost of launching a laser beam is very low compared with an Iron Dome interception missile that is estimated to cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The Iron Dome and the David's Sling systems are now deployed on both borders to protect against the rockets and other weapons systems like cruise missiles, but sources say that in case of massive rocket attacks, and in many cases the need to launch more than one interceptor, the capability will be stretched to a critical point.

According to some estimates, in order to intercept such a large number of rockets, the IDF will have to fire a huge number of more than 30,000 interceptors from the Iron Dome system, and the price of these could reach billions of dollars.

That is the basis for the new interest in a laser system that can kill rockets with a much lower price tag.

In the past, Israel and the U.S. cooperated for the development of the Nautilus, a Tactical High-Energy Laser (THEL) “cannon” that could kill rockets.

In 1996, the United States and Israel agreed to cooperate on the development and production of the Nautilus. In 2000, the demonstrator managed to shoot down 28 Katyusha artillery rockets and five artillery shells. On November 4, 2002, THEL shot down an incoming artillery shell. 

But the prototype was very big and heavy, and the size could not be reduced due to the specifications of the laser generator at the time. The program was discontinued in 2005 and led to the development of the Iron Dome and David's Sling as an alternative. But some Israeli defence companies continue to develop smaller, lighter, laser-based rocket interception systems using their own R&D budgets.

An very senior Israeli source believes it was a mistake to halt state development of a laser-based rocket interceptor because “now there is a growing number of experts that understand the mistake that was made and are ready to re-start the development, with the more advanced building blocks available today”.

Indications are that the first tests with an electrical laser will be conducted in Israel in early 2021, with U.S. officials following the process and results.

– Arie Egozi is a defence writer/editor based in Israel.